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6 ways Great Wolf Lodge is like a cruise – and 6 it’s not

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I spent a weekend with my family at the Great Wolf Lodge Maryland, and the entire time I couldn’t stop thinking, “This is like a cruise ship — on land.”

One of our more recent family vacations had been a sailing on Carnival Cruise Line’s new Carnival Celebration cruise ship. Everywhere we went on the Great Wolf property, I kept getting flashbacks to when we did something incredibly similar aboard that ship, especially on days spent entirely at sea.

Great Wolf Lodge — for those not in the know — is a resort brand with properties around the U.S. focused on family entertainment and featuring indoor water parks. Modern megaships are also known for their water parks and all-ages activities.

It occurred to me that mass-market cruise devotees could get a quick cruise-like getaway fix with an easy weekend stay at a Great Wolf Lodge property near them. Conversely, fans of Great Wolf Lodge should definitely consider a cruise for their next vacation.

Here’s how the two vacation types are similar — as well as the major ways they’re very different.

How Great Wolf Lodge is like a cruise

It’s an all-in-one vacation destination

Carnival Celebration pool deck.
Carnival Celebration pool deck. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

The beauty of a cruise is that the ship is like a floating city, with all your vacation needs — restaurants, entertainment, activities — an easy walk from your cabin. You don’t have to pore over Yelp reviews to find a great place to eat or hail Ubers to get to your evening show. You can even carry your drink from one venue to the next, something you can’t do on most urban vacations.

The Great Wolf Lodge is the same. It’s a hotel built around an indoor water park, with many choices of activities and restaurants in a row between the check-in desk and the water park entrance. We spent two nights there and hardly left the building. Whenever we needed something, we could quickly pop back up to our room.

They’re accessible to many major population centers

Cruise ships depart from a variety of coastal cities, from Boston to Miami and from Galveston to Seattle. Much of the country’s population lives within a day’s drive from a departure port, where they can board a ship to destinations as diverse as the Caribbean, Alaska and Canada.

Great Wolf Lodge similarly has 20 properties (with more on the way) near major cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Minneapolis and San Francisco. You can escape to an immersive water park with just a few hours’ drive.

The attractions at Great Wolf Lodge are the same as you’d find on a mass-market megaship

Ropes course and mini-golf at Great Wolf Lodge Maryland.
Ropes course and minigolf at Great Wolf Lodge Maryland. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

When my family sailed on Carnival, we spent sea days on the top deck, where we rode the waterslides, traversed the ropes course and played minigolf. During our stay at Great Wolf Lodge, we also rode the waterslides, traversed the ropes course and played minigolf.

The attraction similarities don’t end there. Both cruise ships and Great Wolf Lodge typically have arcades and staff who entertain kids with dance parties, story times, and arts and crafts. The MagiQuest scavenger hunt at Great Wolf Lodge reminded me of digital, shipwide scavenger hunts on Disney Cruise Line and Princess Cruises.

Carnival Cruise Line offers Build-a-Bear, as does Great Wolf Lodge, and a few Norwegian Cruise Line and MSC Cruises ships offer bowling, often smaller-than-regulation lanes just like Great Wolf Lodge’s Ten Paw Alley.

The restaurant options are similar — and of similar quality

French fries and fried chicken lunch at Great Wolf Lodge Maryland.
French fries and fried chicken lunch at Great Wolf Lodge Maryland. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

The dining options at Great Wolf Lodge Maryland were eerily similar to the restaurants on Carnival Celebration. Each had a breakfast buffet and a coffee shop serving small bites. Both had outlets serving burgers, fried chicken tenders, pizza and tacos. Both have a nicer, sit-down restaurant serving steak, fish and chicken dishes.

For the most part, you’re looking at Applebee’s quality of food on both getaway types. While the different mass-market cruise lines have different restaurants and dining standards, I would give Carnival the win over Great Wolf Lodge when it comes to food quality — both at the fast-casual venues and the nicer sit-down restaurants.

Shaq’s fried chicken has it all over Timbers, and I prefer a good Guy Fieri burger to the one I had at Great Wolf’s Barnside. For sure, the steakhouse meals I’ve eaten on Carnival have topped anything I tried at Great Wolf Lodge.

Cruise ships and Great Wolf Lodge are full of people and crowds

I admit that not all the similarities are positive. You must be zen about crowds and queues if you’re going to sail on a megaship or spend a weekend at Great Wolf Lodge. You must be smart about timing if you want to ride the slides with minimal lines or score the perfect poolside chair.

On the other hand, extroverts will find plenty of people to talk to, and your kid might make friends to run around the ship or water park with.

You have to navigate all the extra fees and pricing packages

Sign listing Great Wolf Lodge activity pass options.

Both vacation types tempt you not only with multiple ways to spend money but also with bundled packages that might save you money (or get you to spend more money because you think you’re getting a deal).

On a cruise ship, the most common bundle is a drinks package that gets you unlimited alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks for a set daily rate. Big drinkers will do well to purchase the package, but the one-glass-of-wine-with-dinner folks may find they’ve way overspent on booze.

Similarly, Great Wolf Lodge offers activity bundles that claim to save you more than 20% on treats and attractions. If you would likely give in to all your kids’ whims and drop hundreds on ice cream, video games and magic wands, the Wolf Pass can help you save. But you might overspend with a pass if you’re disciplined and plan to spend more time in the included water park than in the extra-fee activities.

Differences between a cruise ship and Great Wolf Lodge

The food and activities aren’t included at Great Wolf Lodge

Breakfast buffet on Carnival Celebration

What I love about cruising is that so many restaurants and activities are included, so I don’t feel forced to pay extra. I can eat three meals a day at the buffet or a sit-down restaurant and indulge on pizza and fast-casual Mexican for free. I can enjoy the pool, waterslides, minigolf and the ropes course whenever I like for no additional cost.

At Great Wolf Lodge, the outdoor pool, indoor water park and Wi-Fi are included in your room rate (internet is a huge extra fee on cruise ships), but all the activities and all the food cost extra. And the pricing feels like captive-audience overcharging. My son’s 10-ounce top sirloin and fries came to $32.99 at Barnside. An 8 ounce top sirloin with two sides at the closest Applebees costs $19.99, and I’m certain the quality will be similar.

The steakhouse on Carnival will set you back $48 per adult (including starters, sides, dessert and an entree), but you can also find a basic striploin steak on the included main dining room menu every night.

The rooms at Great Wolf Lodge are so much bigger

Standard suite with two queen beds, sofa and dining table at Great Wolf Lodge
Standard suite. GREAT WOLF LODGE

Cruise ship cabins are notoriously tiny. If you’re sailing on a mass-market megaship, the entry-level cabins are particularly small (and lack windows). At Great Wolf Lodge, the standard Family Suite features two queen beds and a sitting area with a pullout sofa; it also has a dining table with two chairs, plus a full-sized bathroom, often with a full bathtub-shower combo. You’re not going to find double queens in most cruise ship cabins, and bathtubs are only found in suites (unless you’re sailing Disney Cruise Line).

Our favorite Great Wolf Lodge suites have separate bunk rooms for the kids. While a few fancy cruise ship family suites might have a second bedroom for kids, they aren’t common; you’re lucky if the sitting area — which turns into the kid sleeping area with a pullout couch and a bunk that drops down from the ceiling or upper wall — is separated from the queen bed by a curtain.

The water park is bigger and better at Great Wolf Lodge

Water slides at Great Wolf Lodge Maryland.
Water slides at Great Wolf Lodge Maryland. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

If you’ve come to slide, cruise line waterslides have nothing on the indoor water parks at Great Wolf Lodge properties. The Maryland location’s water park is a whopping 128,000-square-foot space with 22 slides (this number includes the little kid slides), a wave pool, a lazy river and an activity pool. To compare, Royal Caribbean’s new Icon of the Seas, which boasts the largest water park at sea, will have a mere six slides, with a few more junior slides found in its Surfside little kid water play area.

On cruise ships, I often try out one or two of the slides and do not feel the need to go back for more. At Great Wolf Lodge, I was at the indoor water park for three straight days and rode the same slides over and over again because they were so fun.

You’ll get more fresh air on a cruise

Water park on Carnival Celebration
WaterWorks water park on Carnival Celebration. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

At the end of the second day of our Great Wolf Lodge stay, my husband and I realized we’d spent the entire day indoors — except for five minutes when I went outside to take pictures. We had been so busy with the water park and indoor activities that we had skipped the outdoor pool — which is really the only reason to go outside.

On a cruise ship, all the same activities — slides, ropes course, minigolf — are outside in the sun and fresh sea air. Sure, you can spend the entire day indoors, but there are more reasons to get outside on a cruise ship. Plus, you can’t beat those ocean views. At Great Wolf Lodge, it’s all parking lot, all the time.

You won’t go anywhere at Great Wolf Lodge

I don’t have to clarify that a cruise ship will take you from your departure port to several intriguing destinations, whether Caribbean islands or European cities. Not only is Great Wolf Lodge not a moving hotel, but the resorts are typically located in nowheresville-type locations. The goal is to keep you on property, not to serve as a home base while you explore nearby cities and attractions.

If you don’t want your accommodations to be your destination, you’ll do better on a cruise.

Great Wolf Lodge has no nightlife or babysitting

Dr. Seuss themed room in Carnival Celebration's kids club.
Dr. Seuss-themed room in Carnival Celebration’s kids club. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

As a parent, one of my favorite aspects of cruising is the complimentary kids club. I can drop off my kids to play and spend some quality time with my husband. Free play runs until 10 p.m. or so, with extra-fee group babysitting available until midnight or 1 a.m. If everyone agreed, the kids could party with friends at the club while the adults enjoy an upscale dinner or hit the bars.

You could hang out at the bar at the Barnwood Restaurant until 10 p.m. at Great Wolf Lodge. However, someone in your travel party needs to be watching your kids unless they’re old enough to play MagiQuest around the resort without you at a late hour. And while the resort staff members lead activities like morning yoga and evening story time, you are expected to attend with your children.

Come with little kids and you might leave more exhausted than when you showed up for your weekend getaway.

Bottom line

For families looking for vacation options where the kids will have tons of fun and their chaos won’t stand out in a sea of other all-ages groups, mass-market cruises and water park-based vacations are both great choices.

If you’re a cruiser looking for a quick getaway, you should consider giving a Great Wolf Lodge one- or two-night stay a try. If your family has fallen in love with Great Wolf Lodge resorts, you will likely love the cruise ship experience when you’re ready for a longer vacation. Just know that both options have pros and cons with equal numbers of ways to save money or accidentally overspend.

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